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Learning About Ourselves “strada facendo”, Along Our Way in Life

Of major interest in the overall context here, and what pertains to Italian Americans, is what is not taught in schools: the history and culture of us

Illustration by Antonella Martino

Why is it that intellectuals like Robert Viscusi are never celebrated? Why is it that, at best, a popular filmmaker or a novelist may be recognized, but never the hardcore intellectual whose work—creative, critical essays, and/or translations—has had an indelible impact on the thinking about the history of Italian Americans?

I wish to share with you a few thoughts on a Wednesday afternoon, midweek, as we hopefully continue to exit this often tragic and sad morass of a COVID-19 existence that we have had to endure for the past fourteen-plus months.

In important moments such as the one we are currently experiencing with regard to Italian/American culture, two crucial themes—general in nature, not particular to any specific motif or individual—often seem to raise their heads: One is the conception and/or treatment of Italian Americans by society at large, and the second concerns what we can do about it in the form of actions, be they “re-active” or “pro-active”! Yes, there is a purposeful reiteration and/or repetition of terminology here.

This brings me to the main intention of this brief missive. The two above-listed themes are undergirded by the basic social contract of education. This is a contract at two levels: I have in mind, for one, education in a general sense, hence with a small “e”; namely, what we learn about ourselves strada facendo, along our way in life. This, in turn, is dependent on the second level, Education with a capital “E,” which involves what is taught at all levels of schooling, K-12, undergraduate studies, and graduate studies. Of major interest in the overall context here, and what pertains to Italian Americans, is what is not regularly taught in schools: the history and culture of Italians in the United States. Unfortunately, said history and culture are not taught in most homes as well. I have heard such declarations as recently as this week.

Many of us have bemoaned the lack of such curricular programming and structural pedagogy, and we should surely continue to do so. However, given that history and culture of Italians in the United States is also not taught in most homes, I ask you to take no more than seven minutes out of your day and watch/listen to what Robert Viscusi has to say about these matters in the three videos below.

Robert Viscusi passed away on January 19, 2020. He was one of our most acute intellectuals on Italian America. His work is known to many of us within the world of Italian/American studies; it is not, unfortunately, known to those who may not inhabit daily our Italian/American studies cosmos. But his voice should be listened to, especially by those who assume the role of spokesperson and/or defender of Italians in this country. Indeed, this may be one of the lacunae to fill as we move forward.

Robert Viscusi, Brooklyn April 4, 1941 – Manhattan January 19, 2020

Given all the annual galas on the local, regional, and national levels, why is it that intellectuals like Robert Viscusi (let us also not forget, for example, Helen Barolini, among others) are never celebrated? Why is it that, at best, a popular filmmaker or a novelist may be recognized, but never the hardcore intellectual whose work—creative, critical essays, and/or translations—has had an indelible impact on the thinking about the history of Italian Americans?

I must mention that one year the Columbus Citizens Foundation did indeed honor one of our most treasured, committed—impegnato, engagé—intellectuals: Joseph Tusiani. Tusiani may have been less “public” as an intellectual activist, but if you read his essays, absorb his poetry, and notice whom he has translated, you will readily perceive a strong commitment to what we can only call, as Daniela Gioseffi dubs it, la causa, the commitment to the promotion in every sense of the word to the history and culture of Italian Americans. This and more has been Robert Viscusi’s ragion d’essere as critic: that all those who see themselves as inhabitants of cultural and literary Italian America acquire this necessary sense of self that eventually transforms its absence within the dominant culture into a presence.

Such a requisite manifesto for an intellectual movement is, without doubt, his Buried Caesars and Other Secrets of Italian American Writing (2006). It is, I would contend, required reading for anyone, lay or academic, interested in and, more significant, committed to a sort of social activism regarding Italian America. Indeed, this is a book, in some ways, for the general reader precisely because Bob infuses in his textual analysis both historical references and social commentary that educate and lead the reader to consider the critical act in general and its varying potential.

So, I am hopeful—as we exit this quagmire of COVID and all that it entails, and as we profess to begin anew—that one of the novel activities will be sessions dedicated to Robert’s intellectual work at future gala gatherings. Sessions of this sort should be a part of all galas, especially those produced by organizations that proclaim leadership in the promotion of the history and culture of Italians in the U.S. I am also hopeful—spes ultima dea—that these same organizations re-think their annual community celebrations and be sure to make room on the dais for at least one of the worthy intellectuals whose work is so important for the promotion of our knowledge of our own history.

Alla riscossa!

Videos of Robert Viscusi

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAF-E3rFc30
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vfhRaf567AA
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-IbD3gLmuw&t=183s

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